Dire realities face New England’s fishing families and communities with the announcement last week by the New England Fisheries Management Council that cod quotas for the Gulf of Maine should be cut by 77 percent. These realities including the loss of jobs, vessels, houses, to say nothing of a way of life. But taken in the context of the centuries-long history of fishing in these waters and the latest evidence that recruitment of young cod into the stock is not happening, the council’s decision was the only course of action possible.
For decades the waters off New England have been subject to some of the most intense fishing pressure and environmental impacts of any body of water in the world. These impacts include shipping traffic, pollution, loss of habitat, and myriad other factors. Researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute determined in a study titled, “A Global Map of Human Impact on Marine Ecosystems,” that the Gulf of Maine and environs had suffered an overall degradation of more than 90 percent compared to their pristine state. The worst of this has occurred in the last 50 years.
These findings are in line with the conclusions of University of New Hampshire researchers involved in the decade-long Census of Marine Life project, a global effort to gain an accurate understanding of what the oceans used to be like, what they are like now, and what they may be like in the future. Part of this project, called the History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP), collected data on the Gulf of Maine through myriad sources, including the log books of former schooner captains whose voyages to the offshore banks in search of cod, halibut, hake, and other fish became the stuff of legend. One researcher reported that the Gulf of Maine has seen losses on the order of “97 to 99 percent of the weight of all finfish and bivalve mollusks” compared to what was there 150 years ago. These are the creatures that comprise the very basis of the commercial catch.
Clarities in hindsight can be bitter medicine. Ecosystems shift, as do human societies and technologies, but certain truths emerge with yesterday’s difficult news that are worth taking to heart — not just those who will lose their livelihoods in the aftermath of this decision, but all of us. The truths are that there are limits to nature, that we have the power to exceed those limits, and that if we do not take a precautionary approach when dealing with ecosystems, we will suffer the consequences now and into the future.
Those consequences can be heavy indeed. Mismanaged fisheries cost the global economy $50 billion annually in lost revenue. In the current furor over groundfish quotas we find ourselves squabbling over crumbs while the real goal should be the rebuilding not just of individual stocks, but of the ecosystem itself — from the ravaged bottom dragged for decades by trawlers to the restitution of the relationships between different levels of the ecosystem, from primary producers like plankton to apex predators like bluefin tuna. This is not impossible but it is arduous, inevitably painful, and requires long-term sacrifices from which some communities and individuals may never recover — unless they are helped.
Congress should resurrect and approve the Commerce Department’s September 2012 ruling for disaster relief for the fishery. Fishermen, boat owners and others affected by this collapse should be compensated and encouraged to leave the industry, and the National Marine Fisheries Servies should not approve a compensatory proposal to open 5,000 square miles of protected offshore grounds — grounds established so that stocks there could recover. Then, with the unavoidable damage to fishing families and communities contained, we should begin the long, hard work of restoring what we have squandered.
Matt Rigney is author of “In Pursuit of Giants: One Man’s Global Search for the Last of the Great Fish.”